Let’s face it: It was pretty much impossible for the games of 2018 to live up to the games of 2017. Like 2007, 1998, and 1993 before it, that’s a year we’re going to be talking about for ages, with loads of boundary-pushing releases. But as we looked back at the games we’ve lost ourselves in over these last six months, it’s clear 2018 is no slouch, delivering some surprising series revitalizations alongside clever originals and flawed but innovative experiments.


Celeste

You may’ve played super-hard, throwback platformers before, but you’ve never played one quite like Celeste, the second game by TowerFall’s Matt Thorson. It has the diamond-cut controls and lovingly animated pixel art you’d expect, but it sets these qualities in a relentlessly inventive mountain-climbing journey that has an almost Nintendo-esque surplus of ideas. Each of its chapters finds some inventive new wrinkle, whether it’s sling-shotting antimatter goo or switches that jerk to attention every time you double-jump. The levels wring new variations out of the ingredients for a while, then move on to the next, like a post-punk band locking into an angular groove and then up-shifting into something even more interesting and difficult. The wealth of feeling at the game’s core—it’s a parable for overcoming social anxiety—makes its way into all of the game’s systems, which gently encourage you to embrace the game’s difficulty at your own level. [Clayton Purdom]


Vampyr

In many games moral choices are about occasionally selecting a good or evil action from a menu. But in Dontnod’s Vampyr, set during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, Dr. Jonathan Reid is constantly torn between his ethical imperative as a surgeon and his cravings as a creature of the night. Curing sick citizens requires schlepping across London on foot, fighting mutants and vampire hunters along the way, to administer medicine to ungrateful jackoffs who often don’t even thank you, or you could just eat them—devouring citizens nets you a big chunk of experience points. For Reid, morality isn’t about occasional one-off choices; it’s about unwavering dedication to inconvenient and unrewarding behavior done for its own sake. And the temptation to commit evil is truly constant, because immoral behavior is so lucrative. Vampyr isn’t a game for moral dilettantes, whose commitment to ethical behavior begins and ends with selecting the blue dialogue option when prompted. It’s a game that requires genuine, ongoing moral discipline—a rarity in games, and a treat. [Patrick Lee]


Cultist Simulator

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The best you generally hope for from a video game, writing-wise, is competence. Nothing that embarrasses you; words that seem human. Rarer still are the games that base their entire appeal around their literary merit—but Cultist Simulator is one of them. That strange, dry name hides a sprawling and difficult tale of a young cult leader making ends meet, exploring a luminous occult mythology, and gradually accumulating power among a set of eager followers. Unlike the designers’ previous games at Failbetter, which frequently felt like gussied-up interactive fiction, Cultist Simulator demands hair-trigger attention to the way its many timers and systems interact. It obfuscates the rules by which these operate to the point that playing the game feels like learning to play Netrunner with only the cards’ flavor text to go on. You die constantly. You piece together passion and dreams, occult scraps and afflictions, moths and hunters, figuring out the game’s own dark magic as you go. The result is a testament to the strengths of games, the way smartly defined mechanics can enliven storytelling with a rare power. [Clayton Purdom]


Bloodstained: Curse Of The Moon

Bloodstained: Curse Of The Moon looks like Castlevania, with its Hammer Films countrysides and supernatural demon hunters crushing creeps with whips and swords. It sounds like Castlevania, with its blistering tunes that jam so hard it feels like some chiptune version of Iron Maiden might erupt out of the Nintendo Switch and start rocking out right on the spot. It even feels like Castlevania, forgiving enough in its modernity to make its old-school challenges faster in practice but faithful enough to capture the essence of nail-biting platforming and halting combat. What makes Curse Of The Moon feel so special this year is that it isn’t Castlevania—it’s pure Inti Creates. The Japanese indie studio has been making traditional 2D action games for over 20 years now. It’s also the studio that made 8-bit revivalism big business with 2008’s Mega Man 9, and like that game, Curse Of The Moon feels like a perfect realization of the team’s strengths, a gorgeous reimagining of video game canon aesthetics. Sometimes they do indeed make them like they used to. [Anthony John Agnello]


Yakuza 6: The Song Of Life

Yakuza is a series that’s exceedingly good at presenting effective juxtapositions, and Yakuza 6, the finale of long-time star Kazuma Kiryu’s story, might do it better than any other. The series’ winning tonal dichotomy—a melodramatic main story surrounded by whacked-out sidequests—is there in spades, with the tired, fatherly Kiryu getting talked into some seriously goofy hijinks. And though it might lack the grimy charms of Yakuza 0’s ’80s atmosphere, Yakuza 6 makes up for it by jumping the series’ characters and locations 30 years forward into 2016 and using the jarring transition to make its modernized Tokyo feel like a confusing technological wonderland, full of evil AI assistants and runaway Roombas. But the most affecting change of pace is when you’re able to leave the bustle of Tokyo for a quiet fishing city and start ingratiating yourself into the small-town society. When you’re tired of chasing down impeccably dressed heavies, it’s a chance to manage a baseball team, become a beloved mascot, and befriend some barflies at a local watering hole. [Matt Gerardi]


Into The Breach

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More chesslike puzzle game than mecha-heavy action adventure, Subset Games’ follow-up to its award-winning spaceship simulator FTL nevertheless offers up the perfect sensation of just barely keeping the apocalypse in check. Like any great puzzler, Into The Breach thrives by giving you just enough information to save the day—or hang yourself in the process. Filled with a roster of diverse, tactically fascinating mecha and pilots that keep each play-through feeling like a fresh set of violent new brainteasers, Breach (and its antagonists, the mindless insectoid Vek) never lets the pressure off. More importantly, it never loses sight of the relieving/infuriating certainty that whatever happens, it’s all your responsibility. (Or, you know, your fault.) [William Hughes]


Far: Lone Sails

Far: Lone Sails tells much of its story topographically, sending the player in a clattering, trailer-like contraption across a post-apocalyptic landscape. Its ruined industrial wastelands and bleary, sun-bleached deserts occasionally reach Playdead levels of visual maturity, a dose of despair leavened by the game’s folksy indie-rock soundtrack. It’s the type of game—short, mechanically straightforward, aesthetically rich—that one could essentially get the gist of via a silent YouTube long-play. But that’d be missing out on the great pneumatic whoosh of your dirigible’s buttons, the feeling of its sail clicking into place, the meditative rhythm you eventually develop as you take your mysterious protagonist on their mysterious journey. You remember the game afterward as much for its rich, wordless world as you do the bold clarity of its design, a journey you feel in more ways than one. [Clayton Purdom]


Sea Of Thieves

Sea Of Thieves has faults, like a lack of quest variation and the general assholeness of other players, but it becomes something special when you get the right crew together and learn all of the ropes—literally, there are various ropes you need to keep track of when sailing. Moving a ship from one island to another seems so simple at first, but I don’t think I’ve ever done something in a video game that required so much coordination between players and felt so satisfying to pull off. Killing skeletons or looking for treasure loses its thrill after a while, but goofing around with your friends by getting wasted on in-game grog, sneaking onto enemy ships to steal their treasure, and launching crew members out of cannons is consistently entertaining. I’ve never experienced something quite like Sea Of Thieves before, and short of getting a real boat, it’s something I can really only experience in a video game. It deserves to be celebrated for that alone. [Sam Barsanti]


Monster Hunter World

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Let’s be honest: Monster Hunter World is still, frequently, a clunky, obtuse, grindy mess. But with this latest iteration in its long-running dino-punching series, Capcom has finally shaved off just enough of that obtuse clunk to let the series’ brilliance shine through to the rest of us. The result is a deep dive into thrillingly close battles with beautifully animated monsters, the slowly accruing mastery of any number of intriguing weapons (and the billion other cooking systems, crafting systems, and system systems the game tosses in to keep you in top form), and, of course, all the best in fashion choices for your adorable companion cat. The writing is still lame. The giant monster fights are still boring slogs. And the plot is so bare bones that you might as well harvest it to make a new Switch Axe. None of it matters: Monster Hunter’s core loop has now been so streamlined and tightened that it’s practically irresistible. [William Hughes]


Iconoclasts

Although it went through a similarly lengthy, troubled gestation, Iconoclasts is not like Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote or My Bloody Valentine’s mbv, creations delivered after years of tortured, precise production from beloved masters in their fields. Joakim “Konjak” Sandberg has made and released games before but they were thorny, strange things that were tough to play and astounding to look at. When he first showed off Iconoclasts over a decade ago, people expected it to be his Brazil or Loveless. It isn’t, but it’s damn close. Between its shrapnel-spewing, screen-filling boss fights, tricky environmental pathfinding, and intense but aloof story about a weird land ruled by a brutal anti-technology theocracy is a game that is often as frustrating as it is beautiful. Every moment of unforgiving play or drawn-out dialogue only adds to the irresistible other-worldliness of Konjak’s creation. His old work hinted that he could create a realized, unique fantasy world. It took him the better part of a generation to do it, but he delivered. [Anthony John Agnello]


Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom

Studio Ghibli could never be accused of creative laziness, but it certainly has a comfort zone—cute creatures, doe-eyed naifs, chunky flying machines, etc. The studio’s first game, Ni No Kuni, was charming, but it basically just transplanted that whimsical schtick into an interactive format. Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is in many ways another typical Ghibli project. It’s the story of a young lad learning to shoulder massive responsibilities with the help of a weird little monster. But this time, one of the main characters is the president of the goddamn United States, who gets blasted into an anime fantasy kingdom when New York is obliterated by a nuclear missile. It’s a jarringly odd narrative choice that helps all the usual Ghibli hallmarks feel fun and alien again—the pinch of salt that enables the game’s sweet flavor to truly stand out. This must be what it was like to see the original My Neighbour Totoro/Grave Of The Fireflies double bill. [Patrick Lee]


Minit

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Never discount the power of brevity, especially in a medium as full of potential marathon time-wasters as gaming. Hence my appreciation for this bite-sized riff on the Zelda formula, which promises to take up very little of your time, on both a micro and a macro scale. The gimmick of Minit is simple: That’s exactly how long your adorable little hero has before he drops dead, time best spent hunting down new equipment, doing chores for your neighbors, and always seeking a new foothold to move you forward the next time you pop back up to life. That appealingly tense design epiphany would be enough on its own, but the game’s developers went above and beyond by packing their world full of secrets, cute characters, and fun jokes—even if it never tops the charming slowpoke you meet on the game’s third or fourth screen, who cheerfully chats with you at a snail’s pace, blissfully ignorant of the rising anxiety of the ticking clock. [William Hughes]


Pillars Of Eternity II: Deadfire

After 2000, the dense Dungeons & Dragons-inspired RPGs that once dominated computer gaming for decades all but disappeared. Then Kickstarter happened, and that genre was one of the first to experience a fruitful revival. I’ve tried my hand at plenty of the games to come out of this movement, but Obsidian’s Pillars Of Eternity II was the first to really stick (even more so than the original Pillars). That comes down to the setting, themes, and evocative writing. It’s a game set in a fantasy archipelago, and there’s an almost dizzying number of factions populating it: pirates, religious orders, colonizers, trade companies, and the native people whose way of life they’re all interrupting. All those groups and their conflicting interests come together to create this dense web of characters and stories that’s a pleasure to get lost in. Plus you can have a pet pig, hang out with a hot fishman who everyone in the world wants to bang, and befriend a talking sword who has orgasmic reactions to spilling dirty imperialist blood. What’s not to like? [Matt Gerardi]


God Of War

Having finally succeeded in complete deicide of the Greek pantheon, God Of War’s soft reboot places a more mature, more bearded Kratos in Norse mythology where he’s raising a son. There are limitations to this newfound maturity—Kratos would still rather cave in the lid of a treasure chest with his fist than take even a moment to fiddle with the latch—but the game impressed me with how the relationship between these two people could convey more weight than the entire previous series’ heavens-spanning murder spree. I was never fully committed to the old God Of War’s graphically absurd, self-serious bombast, but I did enjoy the spectacle and tight combat. The new game retains both of those, but replaces most of the sociopathic murder of innocents with sometimes telling a human smaller than you that they’re doing a good job. It’s a significant improvement. One of the few—if not criticisms, then disappointments—with this new God Of War is how it traded the series’ wide aerial view of the combat stages for a more narrow perspective situated behind Kratos’ shoulder. In doing so, the grandeur of the set pieces was diminished to a human level. But it makes sense. Kratos was once wild, hateful chaos radiating in every direction. Now his view is smaller and more uncertain. All that matters is seeing what stands between you and your son. [Nick Wanserski]


Dragon Ball FighterZ

Dragon Ball FighterZ is a game so good, with a concept so freakin’ obvious that it’s painfully mind-boggling to even consider it took this long to get made. Don’t get me wrong. There have been dozens of Dragon Ball fighting games, but none have come remotely close to achieving what Arc System Works has here: breaking Dragon Ball Z’s iconic over-the-top action into a few key components and assembling them into a fast-paced tag-team brawler that captures everything about why this show has been enchanting fans for generations. There’s incredible depth to it, allowing the most deft of players to turn errant hits into health-melting combos that zig-zag victims across the screen with eruptions of lasers and explosions. But the way all those moves—screen-filling beams, teleportation, dashing at your foe like a homing missile—connect to one another is seamless and forgiving enough to allow even a clumsy oaf like me to put on incredible displays. It’s a game I never knew I wanted, but now that it’s here, I haven’t been able to put it down since January. [Matt Gerardi]